WASHINGTON – A mother found in her home with the decomposing bodies of her four daughters was charged Thursday with murder after reportedly telling investigators that the children were possessed by demons and died in their sleep.
Banita Jacks, 33, was charged with four counts of first-degree murder and appeared in District of Columbia Superior Court. She told police that the deaths occurred before a utility turned off her electricity, which prosecutors said was in September 2007, according to charging documents.
The bodies of the girls — ages 5 to 17 — were found Wednesday when deputy U.S. marshals served an eviction notice at the apartment in southeast Washington.
"I don't think anyone in the city can remember a case involving this many young people who have died in such a tragic way," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said.
Jacks told investigators that the children were possessed by demons and began dying in their sleep, one by one, within a seven-day period, documents say. She also said she had not fed her children for a substantial time before their deaths.
Medical examiner Dr. Marie-Lydie Pierre-Louis said the bodies were in the apartment more than 15 days, "based on the insects that were found there."
Jacks could receive a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Jacks appeared in court in a white jump suit and sandals. She did not speak during the hearing. Superior Court Magistrate Judge Karen Howze ordered her held without bond. Her attorneys had argued that she should be released to the custody of an adult relative pending trial.
The charging documents identify the children as Brittany Jacks, 17; Tatianna Jacks, 11; N'Kiah Fogle, 6; and Aja Fogle, 5.
Although autopsies are incomplete, the medical examiner's office reported that there was evidence that Brittany had been stabbed, the charging documents state. There was evidence of binding on the necks of the Tatianna and N'Kiah, and evidence of blunt force injury to the head of Aja and binding on her neck, according to the documents.
The bodies of the three younger children on the floor of an unfurnished room, according to the charging documents. Brittany's body was on the floor of another bare room.
The three children were dressed in white T-shirts, the documents said.
Brittany's body was partially covered by a white T-shirt. An object that appeared to be a steak knife lay nearby, and there was a dried maroon liquid around the body, according to the documents.
Court records in Charles County, Md., show that Jacks filed paternity suits against three men, two of which were successful. In one case, Norman C. Penn Jr., whose most recent address is in Glen Burnie, is named the father of Brittany. In another case, Kevin J. Stoddard, whose most recent address is listed in Prince George's County, acknowledged he is the father of Tatianna.
The county court records indicated that both men failed to pay required child support. Penn was convicted of criminal contempt and received a suspended jail sentence. Records also show that in 2004, lenders foreclosed on a Waldorf townhome that Jacks had purchased three years earlier.
The home where the bodies were found is in one of the city's poorest, most violent neighborhoods. The block is lined by virtually identical apartment houses near Bolling Air Force Base. About one-third of the city's homicides last year occurred in the area, according to preliminary police statistics.
City officials were scrambling to understand how four children could have been dead for at least two weeks without anyone knowing.
The mayor said Thursday that officials were working to determine what other contacts city agencies had with the family.
"We are going to investigate every single contact that this family has had with the government, with people who are paid to look out for the welfare of children, and we will come back with a full report," Fenty said.
Jacks graduated from Aaron's Academy of Beauty in Waldorf in August 2005 with a license to practice cosmetology, said Stacy Lynch, the school's director. She described Jacks as a friendly woman, a good student and a good mother.
"She loved her children," said Lynch. "When you saw Banita outside of school, you saw the girls ... they were always together."
Nona Richardson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said Jacks' three younger daughters attended the Meridian Public Charter School in Washington consistently until March 2007.
When they stopped showing up, Richardson said the school immediately tried to contact the mother by mail and telephone. Officials finally went to the woman's home and the woman told a school official that she wanted to withdraw the children and home-school them. They were officially withdrawn in mid-March 2007.
A child at Jacks' Washington address also had attended Stuart-Hobson Elementary School but withdrew in 2006 as a fifth-grader, public school officials said.
The D.C. Child and Family Services agency tried last year to investigate a complaint about the family. But investigators could not make face-to-face contact with family members and believed they had moved to Maryland, agency spokeswoman Mindy Good said.
Norris West, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said D.C. officials in June asked social services officials in Charles County, Md., to open a case for the family. However, county officials were not able to locate the family, and it is unclear whether they had actually moved to Charles County, West said.
Fenty said Thursday that besides at least one contact with child welfare officials, the family had at least one brush with D.C. police.
According to court records, Jacks was charged in January 2007 with driving an unregistered vehicle. In February, she paid a $175 fine and the case was dismissed.